Positive Psychology: An Aristotelian Analysis

by Peter Saint-Andre

This is a work in progress, last updated: 2021-06-22

Positive Psychology is one of the most intriguing and encouraging intellectual developments of the last twenty years. Instead of focusing on what goes wrong in human life (mental illness, personality disorders, and the like), Positive Psychology focuses on what goes right — in particular, on strengths of character, activities pursued for their own sake, and a life of true flourishing. Although the Positive Psychology movement takes inspiration from Aristotle, as far as I can determine its primary advocates have not truly engaged with Aristotelian philosophy. This is unfortunate, because Aristotle's abiding insights into character, action, and a life well lived can sharpen and deepen the psychological understanding provided by Positive Psychology. In this essay I sketch the beginnings of a more cross-disciplinary approach, delving into three key topics: character and virtue, pleasure and activity, and happiness and flourishing.

Character and Virtue

To start, a summary of Aristotle's views is in order. Building on the earlier work of Socrates and Plato, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) analyzed a number of ancient Greek concepts related to human life, including εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia = flourishing or happiness), ἀρετή (arete = excellence or virtue), ἕξις (hexis = trait or disposition), πρᾶξις (praxis = action or conduct), πάθος (pathos = reaction or feeling), προαίρεσις (prohairesis = commitment or choice), τέλος (telos = purpose or goal), φιλία (philia = love or friendship), and φρόνησις (phronesis = wisdom or know-how). For our purposes I will focus on arete, since it is so close to the central Positive Psychology concept of a strength.

According to Aristotle, an excellence of character is a stable trait of choice, activity, and feeling acquired through repeated practice and personal reflection, layered atop the foundation of inborn tendencies as well as enculturation within one's family and society. Each such excellence (courage, justice, moderation, wisdom, and so on) is a matter of "hitting the target" with regard to a particular domain of action or reaction in life, and doing so in a deliberate way that avoids the associated extremes (e.g., in the case of courage, the extremes of timidity and rashness). Yet the highest excellence is not merely intermediate between extremes (what's now called Aristotle's "doctrine of the mean"), but consists of acting and reacting beautifully (καλῶς) to the situation you find yourself in. Even though such activity can have beneficial consequences, especially in the form of admiration and esteem within one's community, the σπουδαῖος — the person who takes life seriously — engages in such activity for its own sake. Furthermore, the fully virtuous person finds great joy in doing the right thing: excellence of character does not require restraint or control of unhealthy impulses, but rather involves cultivating the healthiest actions and reactions as a kind of second nature.

Those familiar with Positive Psychology will recognize significant similarities to the concept of a character strength. According to Martin Seligman, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, a strength is a trait that flourishes "with enough practice, persistence, good teaching, and dedication" (Seligman 2002, p. 134). Unlike mental illnesses, a strength is something that one chooses — through an act of will — to acquire, keep building, and use effectively (ibid., p. 135). Because one is responsible for one's strengths, the praise and credit one receives are deserved (ibid., p. 136). The activities involved when exercising one's strengths are pursued by many people for their own sake (Seligman 2011, pp. 16-17), not always for the benefits they procure.

Yet there are subtle differences. For one, the focus on the exercise of will gives short shrift to what Aristotle described as the intellectual virtue of phronesis: the ethical skill of understanding the particulars one is faced with and then finding the "practical truth", i.e., the action or reaction that is admirably appropriate and beautifully right for that situation. For Aristotle, the φρόνιμος — the person of ethical know-how — uses reason and reflection across all domains of human action and thus achieves personal excellence across the board, not merely a small set of signature strengths. In addition, Seligman argues that the six ubiquitous virtues he and his colleagues have identified "are unworkably abstract for psychologists who want to build and measure these things"; therefore they have developed reliable psychological assessments for twenty-four more-specific strengths, which he describes as "ways to achieve" the virtues (Seligman 2002, p. 133). Although Seligman casually contrasts some of these strengths with less positive behaviors — for instance, social intelligence "is not to be confused with merely being introspective, psychologically minded, or ruminative" (ibid., p. 144) — Positive Psychology does not have a consistent account of "hitting the target" by deliberately steering a middle course between behavioral extremes.

Going further, as befits its name Positive Psychology appears to be unremittingly positive and thus does not speak of weaknesses or vices. By contrast, Aristotle was completely comfortable saying that "missing the mark" (ἁμαρτία) leads to a kind of personal corruption (μοχθηρία) that prevents a person from understanding the highest good, seeing practical truth, or acting appropriately; indeed, bad people actively choose to be bad and thus deserve to be blamed or even punished.

These considerations lead to a number of questions.

First, are the twenty-four strengths defined by Positive Psychology merely a larger set of excellences? Aristotle did not limit himself to the four Greek virtues of courage, moderation, justice, and wisdom (sometimes supplemented by piety), but considered a wider range of excellences such as generosity, mildness, practical wisdom, even wit. Positive Psychology seems to treat its six ubiquitous virtues as mere buckets of strengths (is the strength of leadership really a way to achieve the virtue of justice or only a convenient classificatory scheme?); this might be a distinction without a difference.

Second, is the acquisition of a strength really an act of will? Although the topic of learning to be good (Burnyeat 1980) is murky in Aristotelian philosophy, too, it would be helpful to formulate a realistic account of the respective roles of inborn personality, enculturation, environmental factors, and individual choice.

Third, Positive Psychology appears to consider strengths as always a good thing, but Aristotle's tri-fold analysis of overdoing, underdoing, and appropriately doing actions or reactions leads to the conclusion that strengths can be overplayed. A person who fears nothing is not courageous but rash; a person who never gets angry is not mild but supine.

A fourth and related point is the importance of balance. For Aristotle, the moderating factor is reason or practical wisdom, which is a kind of overarching virtue that leads to appropriate behavior in all circumstances. In ancient times this was called the unity of the virtues, and it's unclear if Positive Psychology would agree that it is realistic or even desirable. Yet would we praise someone as completely excellent if they focused only on their signature strengths (say, a CEO who values leadership, critical thinking, and hard work) but were consistently incapable of controlling their anger with work colleagues, family members, and strangers? Here again, focusing on strengths to the exclusion of weaknesses can lead one seriously astray.

Finally, we must account for weakness of the will: knowing what the right thing is to do, but doing the wrong thing. Aristotle offers a sophisticated analysis of this phenomenon, called ἀκρασία in Greek. At some level, our angry CEO might know that it's better to be mild and understanding, but nevertheless impulsively give in to anger whenever someone acts in a way that is frustrating, disappointing, or annoying. Why doesn't this person act on the knowledge of what's right? The virtues of reason, practical wisdom, self-awareness, and personal integrity likely play a large part here. This might imply that everyone needs these strengths in order to live a fully human existence. However, ethical universalism might not be palatable to those who wish to leave everything up to personal choice.

Pleasure and Activity

In modern parlance, happiness is often defined as subjective well-being: good feelings of satisfaction about the course of one's life, or even moment-to-moment enjoyment. Positive Psychology draws a distinction between pleasures and gratifications. As defined by Seligman, the former consist of bodily pleasures — "momentary positive emotions that come through the senses" — and higher pleasures — also momentary, but "set off by events more complicated and learned than sensory ones" (Seligman 2002, p. 261). By contrast, what Seligman calls gratifications are "not feelings but activities we like doing" which "cannot be obtained or permanently increased without developing personal strengths and virtues" (ibid., p. 262).

As Seligman notes, this distinction is consistent with the insights of ancient Greek philosophy:

To talk of the "pleasure" of contemplation is only to say that contemplation is done for its own sake; it is not to refer to any emotion that accompanies contemplation. Eudaimonia, what I call gratification, is part and parcel of right action. (Seligman 2002, p. 112)

This is broadly correct, but with a twist or two.

For one thing, Aristotle certainly held that someone who lives most successfully and truly thrives enacts what is good because it is admirably appropriate and beautifully right (καλός), not for the sake of the pleasure that might ensue. As G.E.L. Owen explained fifty years ago in his paper "Aristotelian Pleasures" (Owen 1971), there is a significant difference between saying "tennis gives me great pleasure" and "tennis is one of my great pleasures"; the former is a positive emotion whereas the latter is an activity (ἐνέργεια). However, Aristotle also held that the activities comprising εὐδαιμονία are innately enjoyable because they are the most natural things we can do; when Aristotle speaks of the pleasure of contemplation, he does indeed refer to the emotion that accompanies the activity, but the enjoyment completes the activity, not the other way around.

In addition, Aristotle held that such activities are not merely things we like to do or choose to do. Christopher Peterson, another founder of Positive Psychology, says that according to Aristotle "true happiness entails identifying one's virtues, cultivating them, and living in accordance with them" and that eudaimonia means "being true to one's inner self" (Peterson 2006, p. 78). Yet according to Aristotle, excellences of character are not a matter of free choice but at some level are the same for all: there is such a thing as the human way of life (βίος). For instance, all human beings are social animals and rational animals. The fact that we live in communities that are organized not only for living but for living well generates certain requirements for good character (e.g., the virtues of courage to defend the community and of moderation to ensure social cohesion). Similarly, the fact that we are capable of reason and speech (λόγος) grounds the importance of mutual respect and practical wisdom. According to Aristotle, these virtues are not optional strengths to be chosen or not from a list of twenty-four strengths, but necessary for human flourishing. Aristotle advocated, not subjective well-being, but objective well-being.

Happiness and Flourishing

In the most recent statement of his theory, Martin Seligman boldly states: "Aristotle thought that all human action was to achieve happiness" (a doctrine known as psychological egoism) and that even this "giant" of ancient philosophy "made the grand mistake of monism, in which all human motives come down to just one" (Seligman 2011, p. 9). As we've seen, Seligman is incorrect that Aristotle believed in psychological egoism because Aristotle held that people with bad characters act for corrupted purposes, not for the sake of εὐδαιμονία. However, Seligman goes on to explain his concerns:

Of these monisms, my original view was closest to Aristotle's — that everything we do is done in order to make us happy — but I actually detest the word happiness, which is so overused that it has become almost meaningless. (ibid.)

Seligman will be happy to know that Aristotle never used the word happiness either, because he lived almost 2000 years before its first use in English. Instead, of course, he used a Greek word: εὐδαιμονία. Although this word too has several meanings, Aristotle has helpfully defined it for us: it is the same thing as "living well and acting well" (EN 1095a19-20).

Not content with a mere definition, Aristotle elucidates the meaning of εὐδαιμονία through a comprehensive analysis in both the Nicomachean Ethics (EN) and the Eudemian Ethics (EE). Both treatments hinge on the concept of an ἔργον: a characteristic task of living (often translated, in my opinion misleadingly, as "function"). Just as a tool has a task (e.g., a saw is made for cutting) and a part of the body has a task (e.g., the eye is made for seeing), so also the very aliveness (ψυχή) of an animate being has a task, which is to help the being enact its characteristic way of life (βίος). Thus "the task of a human being is the activity (ἐνέργεια) of its aliveness in accordance with reason" (EN 1098a8-9) and "εὐδαιμονία is the activity (ἐνέργεια) of a complete life in accordance with complete excellence (ἀρετή)" (EE 1219a37-38).

Although much, much more can be said about Aristotle's conception of εὐδαιμονία, even this is enough to show that Aristotle did not believe in happiness as merely a feeling of subjective well-being. Indeed, in Aristotelian scholarship over the last forty years a preferred translation of εὐδαιμονία is "flourishing" — the very word that Seligman is so excited to discover in the "well-being theory" that he has put forward to replace the "authentic happiness theory" of his earlier work:

The upshot of this is that well-being cannot exist just in your own head: well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment. The way we choose our course in life is to maximize all five of these elements.... Happiness and life satisfaction are one element of well-being and are useful subjective measures, but well-being cannot exist just in your own head.... The goal of positive psychology in well-being theory... is to increase the amount of flourishing in your own life and on the planet. (Seligman 2011, pp. 25-26).

Aside from Seligman's mention of action on a planetary scale, this brief summary is entirely consistent with the philosophy of human affairs that Aristotle laid out 2400 years ago. In sum, while it's encouraging that Positive Psychology finds inspiration in the philosophy of Aristotle, the potential for a deeper dialogue could yield even greater fruits.


Note: all citations from the works of Aristotle are by Bekker number and all translations are mine.

Aristotle. Eudemian Ethics. (EE)

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. (EN)

Barnes, J., M. Schofield, and R. Sorabji (eds.). 1977. Articles on Aristotle, vol. 2. London.

Burnyeat, M. 1980. "Aristotle on Learning to be Good" in Rorty 1980.

Hutchinson, D.S. 1986. The Virtues of Aristotle. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Owen G.E.L. 1971. "Aristotelian Pleasures", in Barnes, Schofield, and Sorabji 1977.

Peterson, C. 2006. A Primer in Positive Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. & M. Seligman. 2004. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rorty, A.O. (ed). 1980. Essays on Aristotle's Ethics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Seligman, M. 2002. Authentic Happiness. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Seligman, M. 2011. Flourish. New York: Free Press.

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Aristotle